I argue that personhood during pregnancy is a spectrum—a newborn is a person, but the single cell at the other end of the spectrum is not.*
My claim about personhood seems to be a simple and obvious point, but there are many who insist (1) that there is no meaningful difference and that the spectrum doesn’t exist and (2) their interpretation should be imposed on the rest of the country by law.
I got a rebuttal to my post by fellow Patheos blogger Tara Edelschick at the Homeschool Chronicles blog, and I’d like to go through Tara’s points. She begins with, “I’m an evangelical, homeschooling, anti-choice woman” and then adds, “I’m also a feminist who is against the death penalty, voted for Ralph Nader every time that was an option, and supported Obama in each of the last two elections.”
Looks like Tara doesn’t fit into the typical evangelical box—in fact, her post was titled “The Constraining Abortion Box.” Let a thousand flowers bloom!
Religious opinions have changed
She begins by responding to lists of American religious leaders in the aftermath of Roe v. Wade who supported it.
The fact that most evangelicals felt differently about abortion in the past is not relevant to whether or not it’s immoral. After all, fifty years ago plenty of evangelicals also supported anti-miscegenation laws.
Those evangelicals used your Bible and Christian tradition to argue in favor of the pro-choice position. Let’s not dismiss them as fools or charge them with playing games. This makes it clear that the Christian position easily supports the pro-choice position.
When does life begin?
She responds to my saying that, as a father who has helped raise two children from babies to adults, I’m an expert on “babies” and reject that idea that a single invisible cell is one. She said:
Is he really claiming to be an expert on when life begins because he is a father?
Perhaps we’re talking past each other. First, I said that I’m an expert just on what a “baby” is, and something you need a microscope to see isn’t a baby. In other words, if you want to see both ends of the spectrum as a baby, that’s fine, but don’t impose that conclusion on the rest of us.
Second, when life begins was never the subject, but I doubt that we have much disagreement here. The new life with its unique DNA obviously begins at conception, though you could argue that, since fertilization isn’t abiogenesis, it isn’t a beginning but a continuation of life.
Freedom to choose
She said, “I want to hear the voice of God. I understand that many fellow citizens have no such desire. I respect that….” And I’m happy to reciprocate and respect that she wants to hear the voice of God. The United States Constitution establishes many important freedoms, and she has the right to that. Back to the topic, she can choose whether an abortion is right or wrong for her, and she can encourage her opinion on others. Where I object is when she wants to impose her conclusion that abortion is wrong on all of us. (I conclude that she wants Roe overturned because in her subsequent post she says, “In general, women should not be able to choose to end their pregnancies.”)
Back to the subject of what “baby” means, she says, “Even a clear scientific definition of what constitutes a baby will not bring us to consensus.” It may well be that nothing will bring us to consensus, but as for what “baby” means, the relevant Merriam-Webster definition is pretty straightforward: “an extremely young child; especially: infant.”
Given this definition, you can see why I object to the spectrum-collapsing approach of calling the single cell a baby.
Back to the spectrum argument
In my post, I listed a number of familiar before-and-after situations and culminated with “[and] a single fertilized human egg cell is very different from a one-trillion-cell newborn baby.” Her response:
Yup. That’s true. And I don’t know a single person who disagrees.
She should read the comments at my blog to find a slice of Christianity that does indeed disagree. Accepting the significant differences between the two ends of the spectrum is impossible to most of my Christian commenters.
Acknowledging that there is a spectrum of meaning between zygote and college graduate does not mean, as Bob suggests, that one would need to be pro-choice.
Let me back up and note that the goal of my spectrum argument is modest. I simply want to attack the argument: (1) human life begins at conception; (2) it is wrong to kill a human life; therefore (3) abortion is wrong. We need to think of a word (“person,” for example) that can be applied to the newborn but can’t be applied to the single cell.
It sounds like Tara and I are on the same page, which is a point of agreement worth celebrating, and yet she still thinks that killing that single cell is wrong. Fair enough—that she consider my argument is all I can ask. What I have a problem with is her wanting to impose her conclusions on the rest of us by law.
So we agree on the spectrum—what’s next?
She moves on to the question of where pro-choicers would draw the line.
Is [the line] at birth? Why? Why not a day before birth? Or three months before birth? What about after birth but before the umbilical cord is cut? Why not a couple weeks after birth? What’s the difference? And who are you to decide?
I sense that Tara sees these questions as some sort of show stopper, but how does society decide any tough moral issue? For example: what should the prison term be for robbery? For attempted robbery where nothing was stolen? For robbery with a gun? For robbery with an injury? For robbery with a death? Is the death penalty a possibility? Are extenuating circumstances relevant and, if so, how are they factored in? And on and on.
These questions are also about people’s lives. Six months or six years makes a big difference in the life of the person sentenced.
We have law-making bodies at various levels through the country, and one hopes that the relevant laws are decided with expert input and measured deliberation. Law making does its imperfect best to answer questions like these about robbery and thousands more.
Indeed, Tara’s questions have already been answered many times. In each state, a combination of state law and federal law defines when an abortion is legal and the various exceptions that might apply.
Who’s to decide?
Have no illusions, if abortion really were murder, it would come as an instinctive reaction from women. It would come with such force that men would be confused by the average woman’s revulsion towards abortion.
Here’s a parallel observation from the other side of the gender aisle:
If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament (Florynce Kennedy).
In the same way that society trusts parents to raise their children properly, stepping in only when it’s clear that something has gone wrong, I want to trust the instincts of the pregnant woman. These instincts come from the front lines of the issue, from the person who understands both the importance of the potential person inside her as well as any reasons why a new life many not be a good idea.
I do not believe that just because
you’re opposed to abortion that that makes you pro-life.
In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking …
if all you want is a child born but not a child fed,
not a child educated, not a child housed.
And why would I think that you don’t?
Because you don’t want any tax money to go there.
That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth.
We need a much broader conversation
on what the morality of pro-life is.
— Sister Joan Chittister
* If you object to the word “person,” give me a substitute. It must replace “person” in the opening sentence, and so must be something that the newborn is while the single cell is not. With all the words we come up with for small distinctions in the first few years of life—infant, baby, newborn, child, toddler, kid, and so on—surely we can find a word to describe the transition during the nine months of gestation.
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 1/24/13.)
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